This is the second time Cross Rhythms has used the term Britain's Gospel Explosion on its cover. Maybe this time it will be more accurate. Tony Cummings reports.
Nu Colours reminding us that we need God's "Power". LCGC hitting the pop charts with "I'll Take You There". The Escoffreys becoming every dancer's darlings with their album debut. Some kind of music movement is gathering momentum in Britain.
Cynics say this spate of overground popularity for a celebrated underground like the British black gospel is merely a new variant of the decades old American phenomenon of gospel artists dropping the 'J' word (and others, tragically, their faith and church going) and re-inventing themselves as R&B singers. Some Christian media pundits on the other hand have mistaken a swallow for summer and proclaimed that a smattering of "gospel/positive message" songs in the pop charts is the breakthrough that Britain's black church scene so desperately needs.
Certainly something is happening. Seemingly every week an Escoffreys or a Brian Powell is being glimpsed on our TVs or in the pages of Echoes and though there's a long way to go before a Lavine Hudson or a Nu Colours become household names, at last our gospel crossover Brits are rubbing shoulders with the Whitney Houstons and Stevie Wonders of this world.
In the summer of 1990 the Gloria Gaynor Gospel Train radio show put the spotlight on grassroots British gospel. The Jubilant Voices, Plain Truth, Barbara Brooks, the Leeds Gospel Chorale, Pat And Co and Dorothy Allen were all given their moment of media recognition. Cross Rhythms 3 even made them the cover story.
But CR's front cover proclamation 'Britain's Gospel Explosion' was pure wishful thinking. Those artists and many more like them languish in black church obscurity and some, like the excellent Jubilant Voices, are no longer going. What the enormous talent of these grassroots gospellers demonstrated was something that wiley dance record producers and mainstream A&R men have known for ages. Britain's black churches are a veritable Training College of Grade A vocal talent.
Usually though, this talent is going to glorify God, and bless their congregations, but little more. For there is no infrastructure in Britain to lift gospel ministry out of its parochialism and denominationalism and take it to a wider swathe of people, black, white, Christian, non- Christian, other than that created by the pop industry.
Juliet Fletcher, a long time gospel promoter, comments, "British gospel artists who have exceptional talent are almost forced to turn to the pop companies who have their own attitudes and agencies. There are no companies with a heart for ministry.
What is missing are gospel record companies. The white-oriented Christian companies like Nelson Word and Kingsway don't seem to know how to market to the black church community. To be fair to them, few people do! In the past when white-oriented Christian companies have recorded albums by, say, the Majesties or COGIC they've not really known what to do with the records."
Maybe that's going to change. In one of the cleverest marketing ploys ever to emerge from Milton Keynes Nelson Word are shortly to get the superlative acappella harmonies of the Leeds Gospel Chorale to the CD buying public. That public though won't be the black churchgoer. Locking into the successful 'Praise Him on The...' instrumental praise and worship series ('Praise Him On The Panpipes' was a big Christian bookshop hit), 'Praise Him On The Voice' will emerge to give white praise and worshippers a rare chance to hear classy black gospel harmonies.
But in the main the Pat And Co's and Dorothy Brookes' of the gospel scene have no chance of national exposure outside the annual denominational conventions so beloved by the black church.
With Britain's CCM/praise and worship companies also targeted towards white middle class evangelism unable to give much of a leg up to the bright talents in Britain's black churches; and many black denominations locked in the kind of cultural isolationism which views with superstition anything involving taking ministry out of church buildings and putting it in concert halls, it's taken a new factor to break the Catch 22.
Kevin Edwards, who in 1991 produced an acclaimed if not big selling soul-gospel album for the Midlands Tracey Riggan, explained what this new factor is. "Instrumental skills have improved tremendously in black churches now that some of the theological objections about having drum kits and synthesizers are being laid aside. Look at somebody like Ronnie Jordan."
As Ronnie Foster the eminently gifted guitarist was omnipresent at Britain's gospel gigs playing in churches and town halls with the Escoffreys, COGIC and a dozen more.
As Ronnie Jordan he's had a taste of the pop charts and is now well on the way to establishing a reputation in the jazz-for-the-masses circuit of nightclubs.
The fact that British gospel can produce such superlative instrumentalists as Ronnie Jordan/Foster and Nicki Brown, the dazzling drummer and record producer of many a gospel track, indicates how black gospel is now adopting wholesale a more rhythmic, and to the purist a less authentic, gospel style - one which is pricking up the ears of many a secular A&R man.
Nu Colours were funkily soulful ever before a major label signed them; while Limit X, bringing a trace of Afro-rock into the gospel funk brew, and the Channels (formerly Channel Of Praise) with their sinuous reggae-tinged Caribbean gospel; show that gospel has come to terms with the secular cultural global village.
Will Nu Colours and LCGC go Top Ten and bring British gospel out of the backstreet church halls where it originated and in to the platinum sales Big Time?
Will the Leeds Gospel Chorale find a niche market in honkie's praise and worship? Or is this another false dawn as we wait, and wait, for British gospel to receive recognition, money and bigger platforms from which to proclaim Christ as Lord? I know not.
But for such magnificent singers as Hildia Campbell (winner of 1992's DMI Award as Best Female Vocalist) and Brian Powell and dozens more, these are times tinged with all manner of exciting possibilities.The opinions expressed in this article are not necessarily those held by Cross Rhythms. Any expressed views were accurate at the time of publishing but may or may not reflect the views of the individuals concerned at a later date.